Sessions memo: Reversal on private prisons could portend shift on justice, observers say

February 24, 2017
The Christian Science Monitor

Private prisons could be here to stay, Jeff Sessions signaled on Thursday.

In a memo to the Bureau of Prisons Thursday, the attorney general rolled back Obama-era guidance in which then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates directed the BOP not to renew contracts with private prisons. Attorney General Sessions wrote that Ms. Yates’ August order “impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”

The move may not have a significant impact immediately: The BOP has contracts with just 12 private facilities, housing only about 21,000 of the nearly 190,000 inmates in federal prisons, according to the Justice Department. But for observers, the rethink on private prisons from one administration to the next is indicative of their very different values – and may foreshadow the future of criminal justice under President Trump. 

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“A large part of the impetus for privatization among both Republicans and Democrats is this notion of efficiency – it just sounds really appealing,” says Professor Mears. 

And with a lack of "apples-to-apples" comparative research on similar inmates at the two prison types, politicians' ideology may be the guiding force behind their determination of whether private prisons offer a way to house inmates that is equally as humane, secure, and cost-effective as publicly-operated facilities, he says.

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Campaign donations may also have helped inform the Trump administration’s decision, some suggest. GEO Group, one of the largest for-profit prison operators in the country, gave $250,000 to support Trump's inauguration events, Pablo Paez, the company's vice president of corporate relations told USA Today. CoreCivic, another major private prison operator, gave $250,000 to the inauguration as well.

“Private prison companies were major donors to the President’s campaign.... No doubt there was an expected policy shift in exchange for their support,” writes Michele Deitch, a longtime attorney who is a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, in an email to the Monitor.

Private prisons with government contracts lauded Sessions’ memo.

“Our company welcomes the memorandum by the Attorney General reinstating the continued use of privately operated facilities,” Mr. Paez, of the GEO Group, said in a statement emailed to the Monitor. 

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“It appears that this administration is deeply committed to increasing incarceration, particularly of immigrants, and has very close ties to the private prison industry,” says Bob Libal, the executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a criminal justice reform group based in Austin, Texas.